- by Michael Bachman
- Published: 13 November 2012
Shortly after I rode and reviewed the Forza Pro Di2, a carrot was dangled in front of me: the lightweight Azzurri Mezzo 90, a thoroughbred complete with the latest full SRAM Red groupset. Was I interested? I couldn’t respond fast enough, and within a short time I received another one of those “There is a large box here in the mail room for you to collect” emails. It was going to be a fascinating comparison between the workhorse Forza Pro Di2, and the range topping Mezzo 90 with SRAM Red, and I set out to answer the question “Is it worth the extra money ?”
As with the Azzurri Forza Pro Ultegra Di2, the Mezzo 90 arrived boxed up neatly from Cycling Express. After getting the bike home, unpacking it and taking some quick pictures, I attacked it with some basic tools and a torque wrench and the bike was set up and ready to ride within 20 minutes.
The bike, without pedals, came in at 6.9kg, which for a frame with a 570mm effective top tube (the Mezzo 90 I tested is listed as an XL frame, and is the biggest they make) is within a hair’s breadth of being under the UCI weight limit – a great achievement for this size bike with no super light components in sight. There is ample opportunity with the money saved purchasing the Mezzo 90 (compared to other similarly spec’d offerings) to buy some lighter components and drop the weight below 6.5kg without compromising longevity or capability.
Buying a bike online –a great idea or a risky option?
Buying a bike online can be a daunting process, as there is often no way to tell how a bike handles, rides or even how well the package is integrated. Here on BNA we published The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide to help online shoppers minimise the risks. Even armed with this info, you still have to make a leap of faith. Cycling Express have the advantage here over the overseas online enterprises in that they have a ‘bricks & mortar’ store that Melbournites can visit to inspect their wares, including the bikes.
Once word got around of the upcoming test of the Mezzo 90 from a small teaser in the BNA newsletter, I fielded a couple of enquiries via BNA regarding the bike. One enthusiast was Melbourne based; after answering his queries, he popped into their store and purchased one as an early 50th birthday present. Another Adelaide based Australian Cycling Forum member dropped by my place for a quick visit and test ride. He wanted to compare the response of the Mezzo’s rear end to that of his BMC SLR01 and, with that experience, was off home to place the order online.
One key advantage with Cycling Express is their ‘Test Ride 40 day money back guarantee’, you can return the bike if you either don’t like it or have purchased the wrong size. Of course, conditions apply, but this is a rare type of guarantee offered by Cycling Express and is a major safety net for anyone who cannot get to the store to see and try the bike in the flesh.
Cycling Express now has the functionality to allow you to order a bike online and choose its options, such as upgrading the wheelset to some beautiful Reynolds Assaults, or choosing an alternate cassette ratio, which addresses one of my concerns with the bike; the standard gearing is better suited to the strong rider. Whilst you can save a few dollars if you shop around and upgrade yourself, this requires input and effort on your behalf and I’d rather be riding.
Mezzo 90 Initial Impressions
The graphics on the Mezzo are quite different from the Forza Pro, a muted grey/red/white colour scheme which matches well with some of the key components. I really liked the ‘fading’ of the grey to black on the chain stays, but this theme is not continued to other grey highlights which I think is an opportunity missed to really harmonise the colour scheme. The Kysrium wheelset stands out in this package due to the raw alloy cutouts on the wheel; they add a striking visual reference to the ensemble. The placement of the rest of the Azzurri Mezzo 90 logos are unobtrusive, such as on the inside of the fork legs, but this adds to the differentiation of the Azzurri brand.
The frame tube profiles are completely different to the Forza Pro; the downtube has a large girth which contrasts with the very slender ovalised seat stays. The BB86 bottom bracket provides great stability and a wide junction for the beefy downtube and chain stays. The tall headtube has a double bulge that gives it a stylish lead into the top tube as it tapers down to the seat tube junction. The neat cable entry & exit points, which are moulded rather than riveted, add to the quality look. The gear cable penetrations in the head tube are let down by the fact that they run externally down to the bottom bracket.
The FSA SL-K full carbon seatpost, Easton EA70 stem and carbon bars match the colours used on the Mezzo 90 very well. The EA70 handlebars have the shallow combination bend that I like very much, and I found them to be very comfortable during the test. The Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheelset shod with grippy Continental Ultra Race 23C tyres add some bling to the muted paint scheme, and the Fizik Arione is a well proven quality saddle. It even stayed on the bike for the entire test, unlike the saddle fitted to the Forza Pro.
So, how does it ride?
Within the first 500m of the very first ride, I noticed the compliance in the rear end of the bike, especially after the very stiff rear end of the Forza Pro. This, aside from the low weight of the bike, transformed the way I rode. I no longer found myself subconsciously raising the bum when a patch of rough bitumen or sewer manhole was coming up. Those skinny seat stays (ala Cervelo and BMC) REALLY do work, and yet, when having to get out of the saddle and climb, there wasn’t much apparent flex in the rear end – the bike just leapt forward, even with my low power! There are more frames that are utilising this style of rear end, such as the BMC GF range and the Steven’s Ventoux, but these are often considerably pricier.
Almost from the first, I found myself feeling so comfortable in the bike’s capabilities that it felt like I’d been riding the bike for years. I had no issue going through corners faster and with a great deal more confidence than ever before. Part of this was due to the excellent grip of the Continental Ultra race tyres, but the majority was due to the handling, feedback, stability and responsiveness of the frame. Mid corner bumps didn’t unsettle the bike and there was very little effort required to alter direction if that was required.
During the test, a BNA member contacted me for my thoughts on the bike. He posed the question: “Given the light weight, how quickly were you able to be confident on descents?” I was able to respond that it took only a few hundred metres and a couple of corners and from there my confidence just kept on growing. Even when having to brake hard on a corner I had already committed to, my heart was in my mouth but the bike responded without fuss. Because of this, I found myself climbing much more than I had with the previous bike, and the grin that I had at the start of each descent was brilliant. The front end remained solid and quite stiff, but the rear end just soaked up the bumps and undulations and followed the front without question. Even high speed descents were handled with aplomb and I never experienced any level of the nervousness that can sometimes come in at higher speeds, especially on lightweight bikes.
Under braking, even when hard for those tight downhill hairpins, the bike remained stable and assured. The confidence inspiring nature of the inherent handling of the bike made me want to take those hairpins at double the signposted speed and at times I had to really rely on the braking power and stability to get back within my capability limits. This bike makes you want to ride fast! If anything, the rear brake is a bit easier to lock up than I’d like, but the modulation and stopping power from the front calipers and Swisstop Black pads was outstanding.
The Ksyrium Elites rolled exceptionally well and were pretty stiff, but the front wheels suffered a bit of spoke pinging when standing while climbing, something I’d never experienced in a wheelset before. Mind you, I was having too much fun riding the bike to bother investigating further and, as it didn’t cause an issue (the wheels remained true throughout the test), I kept riding.
Some interesting things are worth noting when comparing the geometries of the Mezzo 90 and the Forza Pro. The first is that the Mezzo 90 is only available in 4 sizes (the largest being the XL with a 570mm top tube) whilst the Forza Pro is available in 5 sizes with the largest having a 584mm top tube. Comparing the two bikes that I rode (both with a 570mm top tube), the only geometry differences are effectively the head tube length and a slightly smaller fork rake (42mm on the Mezzo and 45 and the Forza). All other key dimensions and angles are the same. These two minor dimensional differences belie the completely different characters in the bikes, and how they ride and handle.
But what about the ‘new’ SRAM RED Groupset?
This bike is now arguably Cycling Express’s hero bike; it combines a top tier groupset and very light weight for a stunning price. Even with a brilliant price set at $3,699, Cycling Express often have specials or offers that can reduce the price to make it even greater value, so you may be lucky to grab one at an even better price. This bike, both in style, specification and frame geometry, can be compared to a very similar spec’d bike of another brand that was a mere 400g lighter, but with twice the price. There is no denying that this bike is more than keenly priced.
The full groupset of the latest generation SRAM RED is used on the Mezzo 90, including the new XG1090 cassette. If you understand machining at all, this groupset is a work of art. The bold graphics and styling has polarised some people, but I like it and, as with the other components, it fits in well with the Mezzo 90’s colour scheme and styling.
On BNA we had a look at the new SRAM RED when it was first released in Australia , and though I hadn’t ridden a SRAM equipped bike before, I was wondering how long it would take to get used to the ‘DoubleTap’ system. My fears came to nought as it was a doddle to use and get used to. Changes from bigger to smaller cogs were quick and direct, and from smaller to bigger…well, they were still crisp (though not as brilliant as the Di2), but being able to change up 4 cogs on the rear was wonderful, especially when that short steep climb came into view. There was very little free play in the system and, compared to Di2, I felt it was a draw – some better aspects on each were overshadowed by other not quite so good things, but that is being really fussy.
In order to get up my favourite hills in Adelaide, I had to change the cassette as the 11-23 unit supplied with the bike paired with a 53/39 crankset is not something that works for hills unless you are a strong rider. So I swapped in a 12-27 DA cassette, a quick adjustment on the RD, and I was away. There is a chance to specify a different cassette when ordering the bike, but note that the XG level cassette is replaced by the older OG (previous generation Red) cassette when selecting this $99.00 option.
There was only one issue that very nearly caused me to call for a ‘rescue lift’, and that was when an annoying creak started to develop near the top of a long climb on the second ride. It turned out that the crank had worked itself loose! Fortunately, I was able to coast down the hill and home to properly diagnose the issue. It seems that the main fixing bolt (a 10mm hex bolt) holding the two crank halves together had come loose. This required a big torque wrench (luckily I had one of those) in order to torque it back up to the required 48 – 54Nm. While it shouldn’t have been loose or come loose, the lesson to learn here is to regularly check the bike. Since then, no further issues were encountered and the bolt remained tight.
The other gripe I had was the ridiculously short valve extension on the rear inner tube. With some dodgy alignment, my floor pump would only just work. A rear puncture after 100km solved that problem and a decent valve stem length tube was inserted. It was a minor thing, but it’s the finer attention to detail that influences the riding experience and enjoyment.
On my last ride climbing Greenhill Rd on the outskirts of Adelaide, I wondered what sort of category this bike would fall into. Is it a sprinter’s bike with its great responsiveness when powering along? Is it a commuter hack (albeit a schmick one) with its really nice ride and solid level of equipment? Or is it a GC weapon with its climbing and descending ability combined with its light weight? In reality, it’s all of them and none of them.
After 6 weeks living with the bike (totalling some 21 rides and 37 hours in the saddle, covering 943km and climbing 10,542m), I decided that this bike would be a great long distance/sportive weapon. It has the taller head tube (190mm on the Mezzo compared to 168mm on the Forza Pro) to give a great seating position, the light weight to help conquer those hills at the end of an imperial century ride, and the compliant rear end to reduce the onset of fatigue on those long days in the saddle. Shortish chain stays assist in the crisp steering and make for great descending, meaning that the slog up the hill will be worth it on the other side. All of this is packaged together with a keen price to satisfy even the most budget conscious.
The quality of the finishing kit is such that upgrades are not an instant requirement, but such is the value of the package that reasoned upgrades will add to the appeal.
So is this bike worth the extra $1,200 over the Forza Pro Di2? It depends on what you want the bike for. If you like climbing and longer rides, definitely. If you have the extra money available, most certainly. And if you just want a great bike at a brilliant price, of course it is!!
If you know me you will know that I am still a keen believer in disc brakes on road bikes and, if I wasn’t so insistent on them, the Mezzo 90 would be hard pressed to stay out of my shed. Because of the excellent value, there are more of these Azzurri’s finding their way onto our roads despite it being a relatively young brand. On a dollar versus output comparison, there isn’t much that comes close. Grab one while you can!!
The Icing on the Cake
Cycling Express also offer the Azzurri Mezzo 90 kitted out with Shimano Di2 for $100 less than with the SRAM RED, which means you can have your cake and eat it too, if you prefer that flavour.
I wonder what the next Azzuri weapon will be? Hopefully I can find out soon and tell you all about it – maybe a Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 – I have the legs and am ready to pedal.
The Azzurri Mezzo 90 is available from Cycling Express and can also be ordered for pickup in partner stores across Australia.
Edit: correction to FSA SL-K which is full carbon & 40 day guarantee which is rare rather than unique.